by Jim Harding
I have just returned from Vancouver where I attended our oldest son’s 50th birthday. I had to pinch myself when I realized how quickly the years have gone by since he attended my 50th.
There was lots of remembering at this gathering of extended-blended family. I had some poignant memories, made new discoveries about our son’s life and restored old connections. It was exhilarating and a bit exhausting.
We stayed with our middle son who also lives on the West Coast with his wife and newborn. I ventured out daily, walking their new dog “Jack”, to discover the green spaces in the neighbourhood. Their home is part of a dense new housing complex along the Fraser River in New Westminster. It was built on the 64 acre site of Woodlands, B.C.’s oldest and largest “insane asylum” for the mentally and developmentally disabled.
I knew the area well for I regularly drove by it when I lived in a student co-op in New Westminster while attending university in the 1960s. What I didn’t know was that a small park that Jack and I visited was built right on top of the graveyard for the patient-inmates who died in the institution from 1920-1958.
Woodlands finally closed in 1996. When the land was rezoned in 2001, the municipality had to face the fact that 3,300 former residents were buried there. Most of the head stones had either been disposed of or recycled; some had even gone to make a barbeque patio for staff.The B.C. Association for Community Living didn’t want to leave it this way and in 1999 it had called for a memorial park to celebrate the lives of those buried there. The government got onside and the park opened in 2007.
The names of all those buried and some of the salvaged and broken head stones are now mounted as small monuments constructed along the park’s sidewalks. The broken headstones can be seen as a symbol for the dignity of people with such broken lives.
I had never been to the park before but going there seemed to fit my mood. Perhaps all the memories at the family reunion had opened me up; I certainly felt more pensive and a little nostalgic. But it took three visits for the past reality to finally sink in. The big awakening came when I happened to follow Jack under an exotic tree with branches curved to the ground; I was startled to find gravesites with headstones still intact. The next day, sitting on a bench trying to settle my soul, it hit me that I was walking over the graves of the thousands of people who had died there. Some of the patients likely carried stories of mental, physical or sexual abuse to their graves.
It took courage to so vividly mark this sad era in Canada’s treatment of the mentally and physically disabled. It is highly unlikely that this memorial park would even exist if it wasn’t for advocacy organizations like the Association for Community Living. A lot of the changes to humanize social care have occurred since the 1960s, as part of the growth in human rights activism. When I was a psychology graduate student I personally witnessed the chaos and neglect caused by the incarceration practices at Weyburn’s mental hospital. My thesis supervisor was one of the people responsible for overseeing the deinstitutionalization process.
But did we see the vision through? Certainly the community-based continuum of care that was necessitated by deinstitutionalization was never put in place. Especially since the Harper government we see more and more marginalized people suffering from mental illness and addictions ending up in jail. Many with mental or physical disabilities continue to struggle daily below the poverty line. Some already face homelessness.
And aren’t we making many of the same mistakes with long-term care institutions? If we’ve learned from the past then why is our quickly growing elderly population increasingly being “warehoused”? Shouldn’t our seniors be adequately cared for as social and spiritual, not only medicalized, beings?
Thankfully we are finally having some serious collective remembering about what the residential schools have done to indigenous families. But it remains to be seen whether this will lead us to tackle the legacy of colonialism that leaves so many indigenous Canadians facing systemic inequality and poverty. A change of government on Oct. 19th will clearly be required for this to be possible.
Remembering and honouring that freezes the past in time can be used as a righteous foundation for creating new injustices. Active remembering that holds the lessons of honest personal and collective reflections in our hearts can, however, be an impetus to find new ways. We are now at the crossroads both socially and environmentally.